Tarpon Springs fire chief resigns after questionable actions at fatal house fire

TARPON SPRINGS — Fire District Chief David Sharp had his hands full the night of Jan. 14. A million-dollar home was engulfed in flames, and a man was believed trapped inside. Sharp, the incident commander, had to coordinate the efforts of three fire departments.

Then things got really complicated. Sharp's boss, Fire Chief Stephen Moreno, arrived on the scene. He had no protective gear, no radio. He started issuing orders, some of which contradicted Sharp's. And his breath smelled of alcohol.

"Your chief is back there (by the house), he's been drinking and smells like alcohol and he's moving lines around," Sharp said he was told by a Palm Harbor firefighter.

Sharp thought to himself: "What do we do? Should we have him arrested or what?"

Another fire official at the scene, Division Chief Donald Sayre, thought something had to be done.

"I had to make a decision — he was not approachable, he was giving orders, he wasn't listening to me," Sayre later wrote in a statement to investigators. "I went to (Incident Command) and told them it wasn't going to happen without law enforcement. Afraid we would be reprimanded and lose our jobs/careers."

Then Division Chief Richard Butcher arrived on the scene.

"My first assignment was to get Fire Chief away from fire," Butcher wrote in a memo to investigators.

The concerns about Moreno came after the roof had collapsed and the raging fire was still popping and cracking at 1304 Belcher Drive on Jan. 14, according to the city's investigation of that night. A prominent Tarpon Springs physician, Dr. Frederick Roever, died in the fire that gutted his million-dollar home.

Moreno, who had been Tarpon Springs' fire chief since 2005, resigned Tuesday as a result of the investigation.

He had proclaimed his innocence: "It had been over three hours since I had consumed any alcoholic beverages, but like peanut butter, onions and other food, certain things stay on your breath for hours," Moreno told investigators. "I was not intoxicated, inebriated or in any way impaired while going to and from and while on the scene."

Moreno, who arrived at the fire scene wearing jeans, sneakers, a black polo shirt and a Tarpon Springs Fire Rescue jacket, said he did nothing to jeopardize anyone's safety.

But firefighters on the scene described a man with "slurred" speech who reeked of alcohol more than an hour after he arrived. They say the chief's wife was meandering through the fire scene. She too had slurred speech and glassy eyes and was smoking a cigarette, they said.

Moreno said he and his wife had attended a fire officers' retreat at Rusty Bellies restaurant where he consumed three Jack Daniels and water. Moreno said he left for home about 8:30 p.m., then started working on some homework for a class. He arrived at the Belcher Drive fire scene about 11:45 p.m.

Those on the scene say Moreno's actions jeopardized everyone's safety.

"Chief Moreno pulled one of pre-connects and indicated for them (firefighters) to go back in," firefighter William Storms wrote in a statement to investigators. "They put their gear back on — unsafe — body temperature goes up — that's how heart attacks happen on a fire scene. The other thing that occurred was Mrs. Moreno; she was sitting on front bumper of E70 smoking a cigarette. Not a normal practice — especially around attack engine — high pressure — if line erupts will kill somebody."

Officials said another problem was that Moreno, who had no radio, was ordering firefighters around without notifying the scene's incident command.

"I had lines set up and I knew where my people where," said Sharp, the incident commander. "I was worried that there might be another collapse and I needed to know where my people were."

The Sunday after the fire, division chief Butcher had a meeting with the firefighters. They had concerns about how the fire was handled.

"Went there to listen," Butcher wrote. "They talked about tactics (fire chief) for approximately 1.5 hours."

Butcher left that meeting and went to the Morenos' home.

"I told him we have a problem — we talked about the issues," Butcher wrote. "I advised him to get City administration in (the) loop before they find out about it in the press."

The following week, Mayor Beverley Billiris asked the city manager to conduct an investigation of the incident.

Tuesday, Moreno expressed remorse and resigned.

"As a result of considerable thought, reading the statements submitted, I have come to the conclusion that the events as they occurred, as well as the fallout from those events, have created an adverse condition for all involved," Moreno wrote in a statement delivered to City Manager Mark LeCouris.

Butcher, a 29-year-veteran of Tarpon Springs Fire Rescue, will continue serving as the acting fire chief.

Sharp said Palm Harbor Lt. Thomas Greear, who removed Mrs. Moreno from the fire scene, tried to show him support the night of the fire.

"Lt. Greear came up to me and I said I'm sorry," Sharp wrote. "He said these things happen. This s--- would have flown in the '70s but it's not getting it today."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at dalee@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4174.

On the Web

Read Chief Moreno's resignation letter and the city's investigative report into his actions. links.tampabay.com.

Tarpon Springs fire chief resigns after questionable actions at fatal house fire 02/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 9, 2010 8:03pm]

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